4 Eat as Much as You Want Chapter

Eat as Much as You Want
Satter EM. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How
to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook.
Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2008.
Eat as much as you want? It just gets curiouser
and curiouser! Are we to throw caution to the
wind and let every meal be Thanksgiving dinner? Won’t we just eat ourselves sick? Or at
least gain a lot of weight?
Certainly, the nutrition policy makers feel
that way. Why do you think MyPyramid, the
current version of the Food Guide Pyramid and
the official nutrition education document of
nutrition policy, makes such an issue about
“proper” portion sizes? Why do you think the
official statement of national nutrition policy,
the Dietary Guidelines, tells us to eat nine fruits
and vegetables a day? That is 4 1/2 cups of virtually naked fruits and vegetables—with only
the smallest amounts of salt, fat, or sugar. The
intent, of course, isn’t to satisfy nutritional
requirements—we could do that with four or
five well-chosen vegetables and fruits a day. It
is to get us to fill up on relatively low-calorie
food so we don’t eat so much.
The people who actually proudly call themselves the food cops are on a vendetta against
food-related big business, convinced that we use
the availability and advertising of “bad” food as
a license to eat too much. A lot of those food
cops appear in Super Size Me, the popular 2004
documentary by Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock
capitalizes on our fear of being sent out of control by food. His hypothesis is that if he eats
every meal at McDonalds for 30 days, he will eat
himself sick and gain a lot of weight. He does.
He gains weight, his blood lipids go up, and his
liver function tests deteriorate.
SecretsBook.indb 27
In reality, Spurlock doesn’t just eat at
­ cDonald’s—he overeats there. In fact, he forces
himself to overeat. Whether or not he wants the
food, he eats every morsel and drinks every
drop served to him. He consumes it all even if
they super-size his portions, which he obligates
himself to accept if it is offered. In an early and
memorable scene, Spurlock eats to the point of
obvious misery, then throws up. By the end of
the 30 days, he appears to be accustomed to
overeating, so he doesn’t seem as miserable, and
he doesn’t throw up. But he is still going by
what he is served, not the way he feels inside, to
determine how much to eat. Little wonder he
makes himself sick!
The idea that eating as much as we want creates nutritional mayhem leaves out an essential
part of the equation: the body’s wisdom.
Why Do We Overeat?
Essential to eating’s rich reward is having
enough to eat. Being hungry and eager to eat
can feel positive and exciting on the one hand
or negative and distressing on the other. The
difference lies in whether or not you are confident that your hunger will be satisfied—that
you can look forward to getting enough to eat
of food that you find rewarding. The irony, in
this land of plenty, is that most of us fear hunger, not because we lack the financial resources
to provide for ourselves, but because we obligate ourselves to undereat. At any one time
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
roughly three-quarters of both men and
women are dieting to lose weight or maintain
weight loss.1
As a result, most of us, like Morgan Spurlock,
are potential overeaters. However, unlike Morgan
Spurlock, we don’t set out to gorge ourselves.
Contrary to the fears of the food cops—both
internal and external—we don’t have a slothful
inclination toward overindulgence. Rather, we
overeat because we are restrained eaters—we
chronically restrict ourselves. We restrict ourselves until we can’t stand it anymore, then we
We eat less and less-appealing food than we
really want. Why? Because we think we should.
Why should we? Health or weight concerns?
Some general idea about proper nutrition? In
response to what we learned at our parents’
table? In my clinical work, I find that my patients’
long and often-contradictory lists of food rules—
their shoulds and should-nots about food
management—come from earliest memory and
from bits and pieces of old diets, reports from the
media, and advice from friends. Their food rules
keep them continually in a tizzy about eating
and continually feeling deprived.
Try yourself out on the list of restrained feeding tactics in figure 4.1. How many of them do
you use?
Figure 4.1 ​Restrained Eating
As originally defined, restrained eating is trying
to get yourself to eat less food or less-desirable
food than you really want in pursuit of thinness.
In my experience, the goal can also be health.
•• Imposing absolute limits: so many calories,
so many helpings. Going by portion sizes or
a food pattern.
•• Making yourself hurdle: “I have to eat this
before I can eat that.”
•• Avoiding certain foods, such as sweets,
chips, or snacks.
•• Limiting your menus to drab, uninspiring
•• Trying to fill up on low-fat, low-calorie,
“healthy” food.
•• Trying to eat only low-carbohydrate or lowglycemic-index food.
•• Substituting low-calorie butter, margarine,
or salad dressing for the real thing in order
to save calories.
•• Asking yourself, “Do I really need that?” “Do
I want that?” is a self-trusting question; “Do I
need that?” is a restrained eating question.
•• Your method?
SecretsBook.indb 28
So we restrict. Or feel we should restrict. Then,
when we can’t stand the restriction any more,
we overeat. We identify overeating as the problem, but the fundamental cause is undereating—or the threat of undereating. In fact, a lot of
people have gotten so sick and tired of restricting themselves with all the negativity that it
entails that they only have to think of going
without in order to make themselves overeat.
It is wonderful to take an interest in food and
nutrition and to try to make sense of it. However, when that interest leads you to restrict and
avoid and makes you distrust yourself and your
food, it becomes more negative than positive. It
puts you in the quandary of having a too-long
list of foods-to-avoid. To eat the foods-to-avoid,
you must throw away your rules, and in throwing away your rules, you are likely to not just
eat enough, but to eat way too much. It’s the “I
blew it today but I will be good tomorrow” syndrome. Food avoidance leads to a cyclical pattern of eating that is not rewarding and not
good for you.
Restraint and Disinhibition
It’s striking that the pattern of cycling between
“being good” and “being bad” is common
enough to have a term: restraint and disinhibition.
It means eating less and less-appealing food
than you really want, on the one hand, then
throwing away those controls on the other. Disinhibiting isn’t just stopping restriction; it is
catapulting way over it, often with a sense of
careening out of control. We might disinhibit at
a given meal, when we try to be virtuous with
food selection and then discover that dessert is
just too good to pass up. We might disinhibit
once a week, as we take weekend vacations
from the food rules. Or we might disinhibit
over a longer cycle as we regain lost weight. We
disinhibit because our fundamental need is to
be fully nourished and fully satisfied, and the
rules we go by—whether we realize it or not—
say we shouldn’t. To get around the rules, we
periodically throw them away.
I have said it before, and I will say it again,
because it is so important: The rules are the
problem, not us. Rules are unrealistic when
they say we have to go without—either in
amount or type of food—and we have to do it
forever. Restraint is profoundly unrealistic.
Going without is painful. Going without forever
in the name of weight management or disease
avoidance is unthinkable. But that is what we
expect of ourselves, so we find ways to cheat.
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Eat as Much as You Want
Address How, Not What
Having outlined our dilemma, we arrive at the
heart of the matter.
The problem is the how of eating, not the what
or the how much. There is absolutely nothing
wrong with deliberately eating what you want
in quantities that satisfy. However, eating in
response to impulse—disconnecting with the
self that restricts—means you have to disconnect with the self that tunes in and enjoys, as
well. You have to go on automatic pilot.
The solution is to stop restricting.
Your eating will fall into place when you
learn to trust yourself, accept that taking pleasure in eating is natural, and acknowledge that
eating enough is essential.
“You can’t say that, can you?” worries a dietitian correspondent. “Won’t they just eat way too
much of the wrong food?” “You can’t let people
just give in to their desires,” warns an obesity
researcher. “They will just get fatter and fatter.”
“They don’t have any idea of proper eating,”
insist the food cops. “The high-calorie foods
and big portion sizes make people overeat.”
In my experience, none of it is true. I wish I
had a nickel for every patient who said to me, “I
know what to do, I just can’t do it.” What they
can’t do is fight against their perfectly legitimate
interest in good-tasting food and their natural
drive to eat until they feel satisfied. What they
can do is learn to honor and trust their own
needs. It doesn’t happen overnight, but when
people eat in a tuned-in, self-trusting fashion,
they get to the point where they truly get enough
to eat without overeating. Because it is so hugely
important, let’s emphasize that last point.
Self-trusting eaters truly get enough to eat without overeating.
While many fear that giving permission to
eat preferred foods in satisfying amounts will
promote gluttony, in practice quite the opposite
•• Foods that are no longer forbidden become
ordinary foods that can be consumed in
ordinary ways.
•• Large portion sizes become less appealing
in the context of regular and reliable meals
and snacks featuring adequate amounts of
rewarding food.
SecretsBook.indb 29
Setting aside food restriction is like nutritional judo—going with the energy (the natural
drive to eat as much as you want) rather than
fighting against it. When my patients trust and
honor their true and legitimate needs, they find
that rather than periodically cutting loose and
eating a great deal of high-calorie food, they eat
moderately and consistently of all food, all the
time, and find it genuinely satisfying. Check
yourself. You are being restrained if you feel
deprived. You are disinhibiting when you
sneak off to eat. The solution? Trust your body
to help you find the middle ground between
the two extremes. Feed yourself reliably and
well, and eat as much as you are hungry for.
Trust Your Body
I have said this before and I will say it again—
and again—and again. Your body knows how
much you need to eat. To recover your internal
regulators of hunger, appetite, and satiety, learn
to work with your body rather than against it. As
I emphasized in chapter 1, “The Secret in a Nutshell,” eating competence is made up of both
permission and discipline. To trust your body to
eat as much as you need, you require both:
•• The permission is letting yourself choose
foods you enjoy and eat them in amounts
you find satisfying by depending on your
internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and
•• The discipline is providing yourself with the
structure of regular and reliable meals and
sit-down snacks and paying attention to
your food and to yourself while you eat.
Structure is discipline, but it is positive discipline that is built on permission. Structure provides support and reassurance for your eating.
To be able to have meals, you need to be able to
tolerate your hunger long enough to get to the
table. To be able to tolerate your hunger, you
have to know that there is a good-tasting meal
coming soon, when you can eat as much as
you want.
Stay in Touch
Once you get settled down and start to eat, stay
in touch with your feelings of hunger and eagerness to eat. That takes effort, but it is rewarding
effort. Tolerating your feelings and sensations
lets you tune in on the taste-enhancing effect of
hunger. As you eat, pay attention to how the
food tastes and feels in your mouth, and how
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
your stomach and your whole body feel as you
begin to nourish yourself. Keep trying, even if at
first it all feels the same.
Your eventual goal is to be able to pay attention to your eating through most meals, most of
the time, whether you are alone or with other
people, whether you are at home or eating in a
restaurant. My smug little secret is that, when
need be and given the right food, I can eat in a
tuned-in fashion in the car. When I am on a long
trip and am loathe to stop for food that will be
ordinary anyway (on a not-so-crowded road
such as we still have here in the Midwest), I can
tune in on a quarter-pounder with cheese, fries,
and a diet soda. Sometimes I eat it all, other
times I don’t. With time and practice, you too
can reach such an elevated level of focused
Eating behavior is deeply ingrained and
habitual. It takes time and effort to change it.
Take your time, or it can become so overwhelming that you will give it up and go back to eating
on automatic pilot. In figure 4.3, “Steps to Internal Regulation,” on page 33, I have outlined an
approach for breaking the process into simple
steps and building up focused eating a little at
a time.
Discover Satiety
You will find your stopping place—your point
of satiety—when you are ready. Reassure yourself that you aren’t using your slowed-down,
tuned-in eating as a way of tricking yourself
into eating less. Keep eating until you genuinely feel like stopping. Notice when your hunger goes away and when your appetite goes
away—when food stops tasting as good.
Don’t worry if you eat more or less than
someone else does. You could naturally require
twice as many—or half as many—calories as
someone else of the same sex, age, height,
weight, and apparent physical activity. The difference is body metabolism. Whether your
metabolism is set up to require a lot of calories
or a few, being tuned in to your internal cues of
hunger, appetite, and satiety means you will be
satisfied on the amount your body needs. For
more on this fascinating topic, see appendix E,
“Energy Balance and Weight.”
Meal after meal, day after day, as you stay in
touch with your eating, your internal regulators
will become more prominent. Depending on
how consistent you are in giving yourself
SecretsBook.indb 30
permission to eat and tuning in on your eating
and on yourself, within two to four months you
will discover a trustworthy sensation of truly
feeling like stopping. That natural stopping
place is quite different from forcing yourself to
stop and different from quitting because you
are so full you can’t take another bite. As one of
my delighted patients exclaimed, “I can get
enough to eat without overeating! It’s like there
is sanity in the midst of insanity!”
Notice the Parts of Satiety
Notice that there are stages in getting enough to
eat. First, your hunger—your physical sense of
food deficit—goes away. When I train my
patients to eat in a tuned-in, self-aware fashion,
they say they feel they should stop eating when
their hunger goes away. But they are only truly
willing to stop when the food stops tasting good.
Eating to the point of satisfying your appetite as
well as your hunger is a durable endpoint. But I
have no rules for when to stop eating. You can
eat past the point of satisfying your appetite.
Next comes the point of feeling quite full. Most
people find the too-full sensation generally
pleasant and seek it out once in a while or eat to
that point when the food is particularly good.
Stopping at this point is okay, too.
If you continue to eat beyond the full feeling,
you will arrive at stuffed. For most people, this is
an unpleasant feeling. It is the feast-day syndrome, the point at which you would like to
make it all go away. There is nothing wrong
with eating to the point of feeling stuffed. You
need only make a choice about whether it is posi­
tive or negative for you and whether you want
to seek or avoid it. The issue is choice. Awareness
brings choice.
Part of learning to internally regulate food
intake is gaining experience with tolerating and
accepting the feelings of satiety—including feeling too full or even stuffed—as normal and natural. Restrained eaters expect themselves to stop
eating when they are still more-or-less hungry
and still have food cravings. They interpret feelings of being satisfied and uninterested in food
as overeating and therefore bad and even shameful. Amy, one of my University-student patients
who was suffering from bulimia, had an almost
irrepressible impulse to throw up when she felt
at all full and satisfied. Because she expected
herself to stop eating when she was still hungry,
her internal conflict about eating was enormous.
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Eat as Much as You Want
Her chronic food restriction had left her terribly
hungry, but her guilt and anxiety about eating
were just as terrible. Sometimes she starved,
sometimes she binged. Whether she starved
or binged appeared to be determined by her
level of stress. If her stress level was too high,
she couldn’t tolerate the starvation. To allow
herself to binge, she put herself on automatic
pilot and ate as much as she could hold. Then
she felt stuffed. Her stomach bulged, her pants
were too tight, and she felt revolted by the food
that she had just gorged on. Again, when her
stress level was too high to avoid the impulse,
she threw up.
In treatment, Amy worked hard to be deliberate and tuned in when she ate. Gradually, she
learned to intentionally let herself eat as much
as she was hungry for, and that cut the pressure
for gorging and vomiting way down. Before, she
could only get enough to eat when she went out
of control. But she still had to work hard to calm
herself down when she felt at all satisfied. “It is
normal for my belt to be a little tighter after I
eat,” she would reassure herself. “So my stomach isn’t as flat as before. That’s just natural.”
Amy learned to expect that her body would
tell her how much she needed to eat. She even
got to the point where she could trust her body
to make up for her errors in food regulation.
So she ate too much. Her body would deal
with it. The body has no need to resort to
such drastic measures as purging to compensate for variations or even outright errors in
food intake. Amy discovered she had hungry
days or strings-of-days, followed by not-sohungry days or strings-of-days. If she ate an
unusually large amount, she wasn’t as hungry
for a while. She learned by experience that
food regulation functions not just within a
given day or even within two or three days. It
functions week-to-week, month-to-month, or
even seasonally.2
Your body remembers, just like Amy’s. It
makes up for eating more or less one time by
cuing you to eat less or more another time. But
if you try to compensate with your head by saying, “Today I have to cut down,” or “Today I get
to eat more,” you will perpetuate the restraintdisinhibition cycle and interfere with the natural processes of food regulation. Figure 4.2 on
the next page summarizes what I just told you
about food regulation cues.
Boiling down our discussion about trusting
your body, here is the basic kernel of take-itwith-you information.
SecretsBook.indb 31
Trusting your body requires both permission
and discipline. To translate those principles into
eating the amount of food that is right for you:
•• Have meals that include foods you enjoy.
•• Calm yourself down.
•• Give yourself permission to eat.
•• Tune in while you eat.
That may be all the information you need in
order to go back to regulating your food intake
based on your hunger, appetite, and satiety. If
that is the case, the next three sections, “How to
Eat,” “Recovering Internal Regulation,” and
“How Judy Found Her Freedom,” will be useful
to you primarily for reinforcing your capability—and your conviction that preserving that
capability is essential. On the other hand, your
sensitivity to internal regulators may be so
deeply buried that you have to work hard to
recover them. If that is the case, the next three
sections are important. They will help you go
through the motions and recover your ability to
internally regulate food intake.
How to Eat
In telling you how to recover internally regulated food intake, I am depending on my clinical experience. My methods come from my
40 years of clinical practice as a registered dietitian and mental health professional. Much of
that time, I have worked with people I have
come to call dieting casualties: people who had
been hurt by repeated failed attempts at weight
reduction dieting—often for many years, not
infrequently from childhood onward. I must
confess that during the early part of my career, I
helped to create those dieting casualties, a
shameful bit of my past that I share in hopes
that it will encourage other professionals and
dieters to forgive themselves, as well. I learned
the error of my ways, and so can you.
My patients demonstrated eating attitudes and
behaviors that simply didn’t work. Working with
them, I experimented and pruned and surprised
myself until I developed a remarkably effective
method of helping people to develop eating attitudes and behaviors that do work. The method,
How to Eat, applies the antithesis of food restriction and food avoidance and systematically
builds competence with internally regulated
food intake and food acceptance, improves attitudes about eating, and improves physical selfesteem. How to Eat is clinical—it is a treatment
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
Figure 4.2 ​Food Regulation Cues
What are your food regulation cues, and what
do they tell you? There are no rights or wrongs,
shoulds or oughts. The goal is to tune in and
experiment to find out what works for you.
Your experiments will work best if you have
meals and snacks at predictable times, and if
you provide yourself with ample amounts of food
at those times. Your food regulation cues will
adjust to those set eating times so you will be
comfortably hungry but not famished when it is
time to eat.
Depending on your prior eating experiences,
your internal cues will be either coarsely or finely
tuned. Even if you haven’t paid much attention to
your eating cues, you will probably still be aware of
the coarsely tuned extremes of feeling famished and
feeling stuffed. However, you may have to do some
work to gain access to the stages between the
extremes: the subtle fine-tuning.
Extreme hunger, pronounced uneasiness: shakiness, fatigue, headache. You are
likely to feel urgency and desperation to eat, especially if you can’t be sure of getting enough to eat. People often become famished as a result of food insecurity,
extreme self-restraint, or poor planning.
Hunger and appetite
The physical experience of moderate emptiness, perhaps mild uneasiness. Provided
you know that you will soon have access to adequate amounts of rewarding food, your
hunger and appetite can be tolerable and comfortable and, in fact, contribute to the
enjoyment of eating. As the old saying goes, “Hunger is the best spice.”
Hunger goes away
The physical experience of emptiness subsides along with uneasiness from energy
deficit; sense of relief accumulates. However, eating is still rewarding and most
people are reluctant to stop eating at this point.
Appetite goes away
Satiety, or stopping place: positive experience of readiness to stop eating. This is a
comfortable and trustworthy endpoint to eating for most people. Food stops tasting
as good (but is by no means repulsive) and your interest in eating decreases.
For most, this is a pleasant, if occasional, endpoint to eating. It is a positive state of
feeling filled up. Eating past satiety can be pleasant for you if you make a deliberate
decision to eat more than usual, perhaps on a holiday, because the food tastes exceptionally good, or because your energy needs have suddenly increased. However,
eating past satiety will feel negative if you do it because you have impulsively
thrown away your constraints.
Almost everyone experiences feeling stuffed as being negative. This is extreme fullness, lethargy, physical discomfort, and perhaps nausea. Food may seem revolting and
you may feel ashamed of overindulging. You may arrive at this point accidentally, out
of habit, or because on some level you decided to throw away all controls.
Keep in mind that while the descriptions of internal regulators are useful, you learn internally regulated
eating with your body, not with your head. You have to go through the motions.
protocol that I have tested many times with my
own patients, have taught to others, and have had
tested by others.3,4 The tools for change in the
How to Eat approach include focused eating
exercises in sessions, in-session discussions, and
progressive take-home assignments.
The basic principles of How to Eat, permission
and discipline, are identical to those of the eating
competence model. The goal of treatment is to
develop eating competence. The difference is
that my patients have been so traumatized for
so long by their struggles with eating that they
need systematic professional help to find their
way out. And they do find their way out. I have
SecretsBook.indb 32
successfully used How to Eat with men and
women, from teenagers through people in their
60s. How to Eat is positive and achievable, but it
is not easy. When my patients do their work,
they are successful. When they don’t do the
work or are afraid to let go, they are not.
Often, my patients’ eating has been interfered
with since they were young and when they got
older they have interfered with it themselves.
They have been left with only coarsely tuned
internal regulators and a lot of conflict and anxiety about eating. When they try to tune in on their
food regulation cues, they find that those cues
come packaged with upsetting memories and
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Eat as Much as You Want
negative feelings. They need help processing
those memories and feelings in order to become
competent with eating. You may or may not need
systematic, expert help to recover your internal
regulators. Whether you can learn internally regulated eating on your own from the instructions
in these pages depends on how much conflict and
anxiety surround your eating. If you get stuck in
spite of your best efforts, you need outside help.
Figure 4.3 ​Steps to Internal
1. Center and give permission before eating.
Try for meals with foods you like. Get everything on the table, declare the kitchen closed,
and get comfortable in your chair. Use a centering breath to bring your attention to yourself.
A yoga centering breath works well, as does
paying attention to 5 or 10 slow breath cycles.
The idea is to give yourself a minute or so to
interrupt your hurry-up and your distraction,
relax a little, and bring your attention to yourself and to your meal.
To give permission, say to yourself, “I can eat as
much as I want; I just have to center myself first.”
That’s it. Once you center and give permission, go back to eating the way you usually do.
Try to center and give permission whenever,
however, and wherever you eat—at your desk,
leaning against the kitchen counter, at the mall.
2. Increase the frequency of step 1. Wait to move
on to step 3 until you are doing step 1 half of
the time or more. The payoff is that you will be
more aware of your eating and of yourself.
With subsequent steps, do the same: Wait until
you can do the behavior half of the time or
more before you move on. Be patient but firm
with yourself. Keep working at it. Mastering
each step can take several weeks.
3.Do step 1, plus pay careful attention to each
mouthful for 1 minute. Focus your whole
attention on what is going on in your mouth
while you eat. Ignore what is on your plate.
Notice how you chew, how the food tastes,
what helps you to savor. Wait to take another
bite until your mouth is empty. What makes
you swallow? Is it letting the food get on the
back of your tongue so it slips down automatically? To savor more, keep the food farther
forward in your mouth.
Be sure to limit your focused attention to 1
minute. At first, trying to focus for too long may
SecretsBook.indb 33
Recovering Internal
In How to Eat, I use a stepwise approach to
help a patient learn to internally regulate
food intake and disconnect from restrained
eating. That stepwise approach is outlined in
figure 4.3.
overwhelm you and make focused eating seem
impossible. Keep yourself at this step until you
are doing it half of the time or more.
4.Do steps 1 and 3, plus have a focused snack
daily. For the focused snack, go through the
whole routine—center, give permission, then
be exquisitely aware of each bite of food. Focus
your whole attention on what is going on in your
mouth while you eat. For the focused snack,
disregard my advice about eating as much
as you want. Instead, make the snack small
enough so you can eat it in 2 to 3 minutes. The
goal is to sustain your undivided attention,
and 2 to 3 minutes is long enough at this stage
to do that.
5. Continue with steps 1 and 4 and increase step
3 to 2 minutes. Maintain 2 minutes of focused
attention half of the time or more before you
move on.
Continue with steps 1 and 4 and increase step
3 to 3 minutes, then 4 minutes, then 5 minutes.
Keep yourself at each step until you are doing
it half of the time or more.
6. Identify your stopping place. If you are systematic about pacing yourself through the
steps, somewhere between weeks 6 and 10 you
will discover your stopping place—the place
where you truly feel satisfied and ready to
stop eating. This will feel entirely different
from stopping because you think you should
or stopping because you are too full to take
another bite. Depending on how much you
have struggled with your eating, you may
experience finding your stopping place as an
epiphany—an intuitive grasp of your innate
capability with eating. On the other hand, you
may find it helpful but not particularly thrilling. For me, being with my patients when they
discover their stopping place is like seeing
them be reborn. Appendix F, “The Story of
Sharon,” tells the story of how one woman
found her stopping place.
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
If all goes well, you will be able to work
through the sequence in a way that is helpful to
you. If you get stuck, find someone who can
help. Reading the steps and enacting them on
your own isn’t the same as working with a
knowledgeable and supportive eating therapist
who can coach you, discuss your experiences,
and help you process your feelings.
By the time you have worked your way up to
focusing 4 or 5 minutes at the beginning of each
meal, you will likely find yourself paying attention on some level most of the time throughout
the meal. Your attention may not have the same
sustained, exquisitely tuned-in quality as when
you were first learning focused eating, but you
will have your moments. For the most part,
you will be tuned in enough to be aware of
your internal regulators.
You will be able to maintain this tuned-in
eating when you are with other people and eating in other places, but it doesn’t happen automatically. You will have to work yourself
through the steps, the same as you did when
you were first learning. However, you will learn
faster each time you apply it to a new situation.
Over the long term, give your eating enough
attention to maintain your focus. Your old attitudes and behaviors have been with you for a
long time, and they will come sneaking back if
you let them. Continue to begin your meals
with a centering breath, permission to eat, and
a reminder to tune in and enjoy your food.
How Judy Found
Her Freedom
While I hope your negative experiences with
eating have been less traumatic than my patient
Judy’s, I think her process of mastering internally regulated eating will be instructive for
you. Because Judy had been the object of family
scorn and ridicule throughout her life because
of her eating and weight, a big part of her treatment was dismantling her self-criticism about
weight as well as food-restriction thoughts, attitudes, and patterns. Judy’s food intake had been
restricted by her parents from the time she was
small, and she began restricting herself when
she was a preadolescent. With each weight loss,
Judy regained to a higher level until, at age 30,
she appeared to be a lot fatter than nature had
intended her to be.
I started her with step 1: centering breath,
permission to eat, and eating meals with foods
SecretsBook.indb 34
you like. Judy came back the next week to
report that she hadn’t done the centering breath
(it is hard to remember) but that she thought it
was such a good idea. “If I did that, I wouldn’t
eat so much,” she observed.
“So you are going to punish yourself for centering?” I asked. She looked puzzled, and cautiously hopeful. “The punishment is eating less
than you want. You have restricted yourself all
this time—or tried to,” I reminded her. “Now
you are learning to eat until you feel satisfied.
Paying attention is part of that. Paying attention
is not a way of tricking yourself into eating
less.” So I gave the assignment again: “Center,
and tell yourself, ‘I can eat as much as I want; I
just have to center myself first.’ Oh, yes, and
have meals with the foods you like.”
This reminded Judy that she had trouble
deciding what to order when she stopped for
dinner after our previous appointment. “What I
really wanted was the lasagna,” she said, “but I
just couldn’t order it. I felt everyone was looking
at me and saying, ‘Look at that fat woman eating that lasagna. No wonder she is fat.’ So I
ordered the broiled chicken, salad, and vege­
tables. It was okay, but what I really wanted was
“I can understand,” I told her. “People do
look and criticize, but perhaps less than you
think. They are interested in their own meals
and their own lives more than they are in you.
But even if they look, are you willing to let that
spoil your meal? What about tonight? Are you
stopping for dinner tonight? What are you hungry for?” Judy allowed as how she wanted
Rocky Rococo pizza. I gave her the firm instruction to stop to get it and told her how to find the
closest Rocky’s.
I was giving Judy lots of permission to eat as
well as blessing her food—telling her it was all
right to eat the food she enjoyed. As a result,
when we did the focused eating exercise, which
involved relaxing and tuning in on her feelings
and sensations as she prepared to eat, she was
able to admit that she was excited about eating
her Triscuit. But, because she was so intensely
ashamed of her excitement, Judy cried. Judy
was a grown-up version of Holly, the toddler I
talked about in chapter 2, “Adjust Your Attitude,” who moaned when she ate. Judy, like
Holly, had been taught that it was wrong to
enjoy her eating. Her inclinations toward eating
had been so rejected by so many (including herself) for so long, she even felt ashamed that
these inclinations existed. Because she couldn’t
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Eat as Much as You Want
forgive herself for the way she was, at first she
depended on me to accept and support her joyful interest in food and eating. Later on, she
learned to accept herself.
This was still only session 2, and already Judy
was catching on that her work with me was
entirely different from anything she had done
before. She was being encouraged to eat, not to
restrict herself. Her excitement about eating was
a good thing, not something to feel ashamed
about. But her inclination to restrict didn’t go
away easily or quickly. At each step along the
way, Judy’s impulse was to use the tasks to get
herself to eat less. “After I did that, I wasn’t hungry anymore so I thought I should stop eating,”
she would report. “Did you feel like stopping
eating?” I would ask. “No, I still felt like eating.”
“First you have to give yourself permission to
eat,” I would tell her. “Later on, you can give
yourself permission to stop eating.”
“But I should stop,” objected Judy, “because
otherwise I will get too fat.” Over and over
again, as Judy became more and more deliberate about her eating, she tripped over her
weight talk. “I shouldn’t eat that,” she would
scold herself. “I am too fat and that is why.
Because I eat that.” Getting herself off automatic
pilot left an opening for Judy to torment herself
about her eating and weight—and explained
her pattern of putting herself on automatic pilot
in the first place. Digging into her food and eating without awareness spared her the torment.
If you think the word torment is too strong, you
haven’t been there.
Weight talk is always there. The fix for it is to
bring it out in the open so it can be addressed
and set aside. “What happens when you get
into weight talk?” I asked Judy on many occasions. The story was always the same: She tried
not to eat it, whatever it was, or tried not to eat
as much as she wanted. Then she felt deprived.
Then she overate. “So does weight talk help
you?” I asked her. “No, it doesn’t,” she acknow­
ledged. “It just makes my eating worse.” It came
to seem as if the weight talk was something she
felt obligated to do. It was almost like magical
thinking: If she tormented herself about her
weight, she was doing something about it.
Eventually, we agreed on a little mantra she
could use to extinguish her weight talk: “I can’t
control my weight, but I can control my eating.”
That was helpful. Judy was discovering that her
weight talk didn’t help her. A study from Yale
says the same thing: Most people respond to
put-downs and criticisms about weight by
SecretsBook.indb 35
eating more than usual and gaining weight.5 If
shaming made people thin, we wouldn’t have
any fat people.
At times Judy reported binge-eating. Then,
we put on our detective hats and tracked down
what led up to the binge. It wasn’t difficult,
because it was always the same. Judy had taken
away permission to eat—she had tried to get
herself to eat less or less-appealing food than
she really wanted. Underneath that was the
knee-jerk notion that she should lose weight.
Position, Place, and
Associated Activity
Judy was typical in that when she got to
about step 4, she wondered whether she
should do the “position, place, and associated
activity” behaviors: Eat only sitting down, in
only one designated place, and don’t do anything else while eating. Being a veteran dieter,
Judy had been exposed to about every weightmanagement technique, including these typical behavioral weight-control techniques. The
behavioral weight-control idea is to complicate
eating to the point where you reduce calorie
intake and produce weight loss.
We were using behavioral techniques, but we
were using them to make Judy’s eating positive
and deliberate, not to complicate and ultimately
decrease her food intake. “Someday you may
decide you want to get rid of other activities
while you eat, but it has to be because you want
to, not because you think you should,” I told
her. “You are new to paying attention to your
eating, and you haven’t yet discovered that you
can trust yourself to eat as much as you want.
Right now, trying to use those tactics will feel
like taking away permission.”
A few weeks later, Judy began complaining
that she almost always ate dinner in the living
room in front of the TV, and when she did, her
food would be gone before she even noticed she
was eating. Judy was ready to address the way
she distracted herself while she ate. However,
we weren’t going to jump into it. “For a long
time, you have been watching TV while you eat
dinner,” I told her. “It must have some benefit
for you, or you wouldn’t do it. Let’s see if we
can find out what that benefit is.”
So we set up a little experiment. We agreed
she would do step 3—center, permission,
focused eating for 1 minute—before she turned
on the TV. Then she would pay attention to
what she was feeling. She discovered she was
upset about what was going on in her life, and
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
that she was zoning out by eating in front of the
TV. Bringing this automatic behavior up to a
conscious level allowed Judy to realize that,
unlike when she was younger and had first
developed the pattern, she now had ways of
dealing with her stress. She didn’t have to be
afraid of her feelings, and she no longer had to
zone out. Having made that discovery, however,
eating to zone out was still one of her choices, as
was eating in front of the TV. Judy continued to
work on her focused eating, and she continued
to eat in the living room. She got to the point
where she could get most of the way through
her meal before she turned on the TV.
The Stopping Place
Then one grand day, about 7 weeks into treatment, Judy found her stopping place. When she
described it at our next session, she went right
by it, not realizing the significance of what she
was telling me. “Wait a minute,” I told her. “Did
you hear what you just said? What made you
decide to stop eating?” I asked her. She looked
puzzled. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I had a
piece of pumpkin pie and then another piece
and then I stopped. I really didn’t want any
more. I didn’t feel stuffed or anything. I just felt
like I had had enough.”
“It seems to me you found your stopping
place,” I told her. Her face lit up and she was
delighted. Judy was the person who said, “I can
get enough to eat without overeating! It’s like
there is sanity in the midst of insanity!”
As a result of treatment, Judy has become
competent with her eating and has gained new
self-respect relative to her eating. She isn’t the
out-of-control glutton she had thought, but
instead feels proud of her ability to manage her
eating. She no longer uses her weight as evidence that she is out is out of control and lacking
in self-discipline. Judy would like to be thinner,
but she enjoys her eating. She is delighted with
being free of the enslavement of struggling to
lose weight and scrutinizing every mouthful she
eats, and she knows if she gets back into weightloss endeavors, it will spoil her eating. Being a
relatively heavy person in our weight-obsessed
culture is not easy for her, but she is willing and
ready to act on her own behalf.
Emotional Eating
Earlier, I talked about Amy’s insight that stress
exacerbated her tendency to binge-eat as well as
Judy’s discovery that she ate in front of the TV
SecretsBook.indb 36
for emotional reasons. The first step for both of
them was to get rid of the food restriction. After
that, we addressed the feelings. “There is nothing wrong with using food for emotional reasons,” I told them both. “It can bring up your
spirits when you are low, soothe you when you
are tense, and distract you when you are upset.
The problem is that you are doing it poorly. You
have no idea what you are feeling, other than
generally upset or stressed. You reach for something to eat to feel better, you feel guilty while
you are doing it, and you eat to push down or
blot out your feelings. Often you eat fast and eat
too much. So you end up feeling guilty and out
of control.”
It is unrealistic and even undesirable to get
rid of eating for emotional reasons. When I am
feeling down and discouraged, there is nothing
like a good meal to lift my spirits. When I am
weary from struggling with a difficult life
issue, eating a bowl of chicken soup or Cheerios
while I sit in my dining room rocking chair
with my feet up is one of the ways I take care of
myself. When I am in a celebratory mood, cooking and eating with others extends and heightens the celebration. I don’t try to ignore my
feelings—I stay with them, let them teach me
what I need to learn, and take care of myself
while I do that. Feeding myself well is one of
the ways I take care of myself.
Many eating practitioners say that emotional
eating is to blame for overeating and weight
gain and that the key to weight loss is to get rid
of emotional eating. That idea is oversimplified
and physiologically naive. To gain weight from
emotional eating, even if that emotional eating
leads you to eat quite a lot, you would have to
overwhelm your body’s natural regulatory abilities by overeating day after day without stopping. There are few people who do that.
In my clinical experience, as well as in the
research, people who overeat for emotional reasons tend to be restrained eaters. People who
are not restrained eaters are far less likely to use
food for emotional reasons. Conversely, eating
in a restrained fashion increases the tendency
to use food for emotional reasons.6 In reality,
rather than overeating in response to stress, the
restrained eater disinhibits. The end result is
still overeating, but the root cause is the undereating rather than the emotional arousal. Hunger and emotional arousal exert pressure in
tandem with one another. Stress undermines
the ability to tolerate the symptoms of undereating, and hunger undermines the ability to
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Eat as Much as You Want
deal appropriately with stress. The solution has
two parts: setting aside the restrained eating
and becoming more comfortable with feelings.
Rather than grabbing food on impulse or trying
to tough it out and separate food from emotion,
learn to productively use food for emotional
reasons. Figure 4.4 offers an approach to help
you do that.
Figure 4.4 ​Centered ­
Emotional Eating
•• Make sure you are regularly getting enough
to eat.
•• Center yourself. Relax, and pay attention to
your breath and to yourself.
•• Reassure yourself. “It is all right to eat. But
first I will find out what I am feeling.”
•• Take a few moments to know what you are
feeling and what you want.
•• Be clear about what eating can do. Eating in
a focused fashion is likely to soothe or calm
you. It won’t resolve the problem—unless
the problem is being hungry!
•• Then eat—positively, deliberately, soothingly, cheeringly.
Sylvia, another of my University-student
patients who, like Amy, was a seriously out-ofcontrol bulimic, was able to discontinue her
bulimia when she learned to consciously use
her eating to soothe herself. To give herself that
great and wonderful gift, she first had to go
through the How to Eat program to learn to
feed herself reliably and well and to internally
regulate her food intake. Letting herself eat
enough neutralized most of the pressure that
led her to gorge and then vomit. She herself discovered the key that allowed her to set aside her
bulimia altogether: using her eating as a kind of
meditative practice, to calm herself and to take
good care of herself emotionally.
With emotional eating as with eating for
every other reason, you will find that you eat in
a more controlled fashion when you give yourself permission to eat rather than withhold it.
With Awareness
Comes Choice
As I said earlier in this chapter, with awareness
comes choice. Eating attentively again and again,
and paying attention to how you feel again and
again, lets you decide what works for you. While
SecretsBook.indb 37
I tell you that paying attention most of the time
and making eating a priority most of the time is
necessary for letting your internal regulators
work for you, you are entitled to find that out for
yourself. Unless you find through your own
experience that eating competence helps you
manage your eating, it will be just another set of
rules. You don’t need a whole new set of rules to
impose on yourself with regards to your eating.
Pay attention. How do you feel physically
when you slow down and tune in with your
eating? When you don’t? What happens to the
orderly and positive nature of your eating when
you set aside time to eat? When you don’t?
When you let yourself become famished? Do
you like that desperate feeling of having to eat
right now, or would you rather avoid it?
What happens to your tuned-in eating when
you decide you have to cut down on your eating
and lose weight? Are you able to go to meals hungry but not famished? Can you sustain your
orderly, attentive, and focused eating when you
are overly hungry? Do you trust your satiety cues
when you try to eat less? What happens to your
attitudes about eating? Are you still relaxed about
eating? Do you feel it is okay to eat food you like?
Are you still comfortable with eating enough and
with your enjoyment of food and eating?
Will you decide to be just tuned in enough to
enjoy your food and to support food regulation? Or will you continue to pay the kind of
exquisite attention I teach in figure 4.3, “Steps
to Internal Regulation,” on page 33. Eating that
attentively could open up the possibility of
making your eating a kind of meditative practice, where you connect with yourself and with
the process of taking in food. Do it if you want
to and if it is rewarding for you. Don’t do it if
paying such exquisite attention to eating feels
enslaving and rigid.
Learn How to Feast
The eating competence model is built on pleasure. Loving to eat is a special sensitivity that
offers heightened experience and particular
pleasure. Loving to eat doesn’t mean that you
will overeat, as long as you know how to handle
it. People who love to eat are often extremely
tuned in to textures and tastes and smells. People who love to eat savor their food—they take
conscious pleasure in it. They appreciate it by
tuning in a great deal, not necessarily by eating a
great deal.
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
Often, people feel that the only way to fully
appreciate great-tasting or freely available food
is to eat a lot—to eat to the point of being very
full or even stuffed. As I have said before, that
is one of the choices. If you like feeling stuffed,
you have my blessing. Do, however, pay attention while you eat to the point of feeling stuffed
so you can enjoy the process.
But think about it. Does the pursuit of eatinga-lot transform your eating pleasure into an
unconnected, unaware urgency to eat more and
more? Do you continue to savor your food, paying attention to what is in your mouth so you
can get all the enjoyment out of it? Or do you
lose track of pleasure as you focus on the next
bite or the next helping rather than on what is in
your mouth? Many times when people set out
to eat a lot they get caught in conveyor-belt eating, like that old Lucy-and-Ethel-in-the-chocolate-factory routine. In case you missed that
episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel get
behind on their candy-packaging and resort to
eating the excess. In their desperation to clean
off the conveyor belt, they stop enjoying the
chocolates and just eat them to get rid of them.
It’s funny to watch, but it’s not funny when you
get caught in conveyor-belt eating. Sooner or
later, it hurts. We get to the point where we can’t
eat another bite, we are turned off to the food
that seemed so appealing to start with, and we
feel ashamed.
It’s a real trick—truly getting enough without
eating so much that you feel turned off to the
whole experience and mad at yourself; being
conscious of your eating without feeling obligated to cut down. How can you learn that
trick? Permission and discipline. Say to yourself,
“I can eat as much as I want. I can eat a lot if I
want. I just have to pay attention.”
Beverages and Activity
Sweetened beverages and activity are two
important topics related to helping yourself be
successful with eating as much as you want. It
is challenging to address them without getting
negative and prescriptive. Let’s see what we
can do.
Drink Deliberately
Sweetened beverages such as soda, juice,
sweet tea, fruit drinks, and sports drinks can
SecretsBook.indb 38
be culprits with respect to regulating food
intake. Sipping calorie-containing beverages
between meals can take the edge off your hunger and appetite and make it more difficult for
you to detect your internal regulatory cues.
Sugar-free beverages interfere to a lesser extent,
but they still interfere.
So there are good reasons for cutting down
on soda. Other good reasons are to save your
teeth and to leave an opening for drinking
more milk. But let’s not pack you up for a guilt
trip. Consumption data indicate that people love
their soda, and in the context of a lot of other
vices, it is not such a big one. Think about it,
and make your choices. Don’t just do it. Many
times people get into a beverage habit because
they are trying to undereat, and they drink
soda to stave off hunger. Others seek a caffeine
fix or habitually use beverages for comfort—to
smooth transitions back to the computer or to
provide a reliable treat to help compensate for
the rough spots of the day.
Whatever your reason for drinking soda, do
it deliberately and wisely. Drink Coke with
your breakfast to get your caffeine fix. I never
thought I would say that, but hey, how different
is it from drinking coffee? I have consumed
tanker trucks of coffee in my day, so who am I
to preach? Consider including soda at your
other meals or snacks and paying attention
while you drink it. If your Friday night pizza
just doesn’t taste right without soda, for heaven’s sake, have soda! If you don’t want your
children to get hooked on soda, let them have it
for the occasional snack and do your conveyorbelt soda-drinking when they aren’t around.
You watch gory movies on TV when they aren’t
around, don’t you?
Do try to figure out other times to drink your
milk or orange juice, however. You need them.
Be Good to Yourself with Activity
You can help your body regulate by getting
some activity—not to burn off calories, but
to support your internal food regulation capabilities. Moderate levels of activity make internal regulation cues more prominent and
therefore easier to read. Moderate activity also
appears to make those cues more accurate. An
observational study done years ago by a Harvard researcher shows that as long as they are
moderately active, people balance activity with
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Eat as Much as You Want
energy intake and maintain stable body
weights. However, people whose activity is
below the minimum are more hungry, eat more,
and gain weight.7
Your level of activity is up to you, but do make
it enjoyable enough so it can be sustainable.
Some people are naturally more or less active
than others. To find the level of activity that is
right for you, experiment. Start at a level you can
sustain. Gradually increase until you get
hooked—until you enjoy it and don’t feel as
good without it. Maintain a level of activity that
is realistic. The American College of Sports
Medicine and the American Heart Association
recommend 30 minutes of moderate activity a
day, 5 days a week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic
physical activity for a minimum of 20 minutes, 3
days a week.8 That might be right for you—or it
might not. A recent study at the Cooper Institute
in Dallas indicates that overweight and obese
people show improvements in fitness levels on
as little as 10 minutes of activity a day.9
Be careful about controlling messages associated with activity, as well. Weight-loss folks
who have given up on diets have yet to give up
on activity, so you will hear overly ambitious
messages that encourage using activity for
weight loss. MyPyramid recommends 90 minutes a day to lose weight, 60 minutes a day to
maintain weight loss. That’s a lot. If it is your
thing, go for it. But don’t try to impose it on
your child.
Trying to push beyond what is realistic for
you will put you behind, not ahead. You will go
on binges with activity, then revert to being a
couch potato until your conscience forces you to
your feet to activity-binge again. It doesn’t work
any better with activity than it does with eating.
Beware of Counterfeits
More and more consumers as well as professionals are catching on that food restriction
is counterproductive. Adults who have been
trying to manage their weight through restriction, deprivation, and good-food-bad-food
thinking are coming to realize that such tactics
make their weight problem worse. Even weight
loss businesses have picked up on consumer
skepticism and reluctance to engage in weight­reduction dieting. All of that seems good, right?
The problem is that there is an increasing
SecretsBook.indb 39
number of phony non-dieting schemes that
conceal the ulterior motive of weight loss. They
are counterfeits.
Consider any food plan that outlines what
to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. This
is not a diet? Consider Healthful Weight Management, which encourages you to fill up on
low-calorie foods such as fruits, vegetables,
and whole grains; to limit fat and sugar; and
to restrict portion sizes of everything. Exactly
how is this not a diet? Consider behavioral
weight control, which teaches position, place,
associated activity, putting in a delay before
having a second helping, putting your fork
down between bites … I could go on. The idea
is to complicate eating to the point where you
eat less and weigh less. Consider “mindful eating,” which in some hands genuinely supports
internally regulated food intake and in other
hands is a thinly veiled scheme for getting you
to eat less and weigh less.
In many cases, the counterfeiting is
unintentional. Many practitioners I train to
support eating competence come into training
genuinely feeling they support internally regu­
lated eating. But because food restriction is
so deeply embedded in their thinking, they
discover they unconsciously put a controlling
spin on their food selection and regulation
messages. Many nutrition professionals say
they love my work, but they have no idea that
telling adults what and how much to eat and
teaching parents what and how much to get
their children to eat absolutely contradicts my
principles. In other cases, the counterfeiting is
entirely intentional. Controlling portion size
is near and dear to the hearts of nutrition professionals, who have bought into the limited
evidence that too-big portions make people
overeat. Ironically, in teaching portion size
they impose food restriction and ignore the
far more substantial evidence that instituting
restrained eating exacerbates overeating and
weight gain. Intentional or unintentional, a
controlling spin encourages you to ignore and
overrule your internal regulators. Figure 4.5
on the next page gives examples of negative
spin-doctoring of trust messages.
Control tactics may trick your head, but they
won’t trick your body. In the long run, controlling tactics make you eat more and gain weight.
If you try to fool yourself into eating less by
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
Figure 4.5 ​Control or Trust—Detecting the Counterfeits
Control-based practitioners can appropriate any positive and trusting eating message and turn it into a control message. The control message seems to be giving you permission to eat what you want and as much as
you want, but it is really taking it away. Rather than helping you to eat in an orderly, positive, and internally
regulated fashion, such negative messages are likely to precipitate out-of-control eating because they make
you feel deprived.
Trust message
Control message
Go to the table hungry but not famished.
Fill up by drinking water before a meal.
Eat until you feel satisfied.
Stop eating when you are full.
You decide how much to put on your plate.
Pay attention to portion size.
To be sure everyone will have enough, make enough
to have leftovers.
Eat off smaller plates.
Savor sweets; eat until you get enough.
Eat sweets in small amounts.
“C” is for cookie.
Cookies are a sometime food.
Go to some trouble to get foods you enjoy.
Don’t keep sweet foods at home.
Make eating important by taking time to enjoy
Every time you eat a meal, sit down and chew slowly.
Pay attention to how good the food tastes.
Remind everyone to enjoy every bite.
If you savor cheese and chocolate, you will get
Cut cheese and chocolate into small pieces and only
eat a few pieces.
Trust your hunger, appetite, and satiety to guide you
at buffets.
Skip buffets.
Eat as much as you are hungry for.
Don’t have seconds.
Eat as much as you are hungry for.
Serve food portions no larger than your fist.
Since I couldn’t possibly list all the counterfeit non-dieting messages, here is a litmus test: If the message or
tactic encourages you to eat less, to avoid foods you like, or to lose weight, it is negative and controlling and
will undermine eating competence.
drinking water before a meal, filling up on lowcalorie food, or eating off a smaller plate, you
will eat more some other time. Often, the distinctions are subtle: “Make eating important by
taking time to enjoy meals” is a trust message
because it encourages you to tune in on yourself
and enjoy eating. “Sit down and chew slowly”
is a control message because it encourages you
to eat mechanically with the aim of eating less.
You simply can’t have it both ways. If you try
to be a little bit controlling and a little bit trusting, you will end up controlling, utterly confuse
yourself, and make your child unhappy. With
professionals, I use the term paradigm straddling
to describe approaches that give permission
and take it away at the same time.
SecretsBook.indb 40
The Matter of Weight
People who show high eating competence tend
to be somewhat slimmer than those who do not.
Forty-two percent of people who are competent
with eating have BMIs over 25, compared with
57% of people who are not eating competent.
Competent eaters show a moderately lower
range of BMIs than the general population.
Their average BMI is 25, with a range of 20–31.
Those who are not competent eaters have an
average BMI of 27, with a range of 21–33.10
Despite the modest statistical differences, the
eating competence model is not a weight-loss
method. In fact, striving for weight loss impairs
competence with eating in all areas. You can’t
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Eat as Much as You Want
trust your internal regulators of ­hunger, appetite, and satiety when you diet. The point of
dieting is to ignore and overrule those regulators in order to eat less and lose weight. Taking
too much pleasure from eating is a threat when
you are trying to lose weight because stimulating the appetite can make you eat more than
you think you should. Rather than having a
relaxed and positive attitude about your eating,
when you are on a diet you have to be vigilant
and critical. The only way that dieting may
seem to improve eating competence is in the
matter of context. Many people get serious
about feeding themselves only when they are
on a weight-reduction regimen. Then, they have
regular and reliable meals. But when they abandon the diet, they abandon regular meals, as
well, and nothing changes.
To become competent with your eating, you
have to be willing to take risks with your
weight. You have to take the leap of faith that
you can internally regulate your eating and
that your weight will be all right. Trying for
any stated weight, even if it is your current
weight, will tip you into restrained eating and
undermine your competence with eating. I
can’t promise you that if you become competent with your eating that you will lose weight.
In fact, I can’t promise you anything about your
weight, because your genetics and body metabo­
lism dictate what that weight will be. I can
only make general observations. Your weight
is likely to stabilize if it is at its current usual
point. Your weight is unlikely to stabilize if you
have just lost weight. Your biological pressure
will be to regain; to maintain weight loss, you
will have to continue to eat less than you are
hungry for. If your weight is unusually high,
you might lose a little. On the other hand, your
body may have metabolically equilibrated at
that higher weight level and will defend that
new, higher weight level.
Even my treatment protocol, How to Eat, is
not a weight-loss method. I must admit that
once in a great while, a person who goes
through the How to Eat treatment loses 10 percent or so of body weight and keeps it off. However, that is the exception, not the rule. In my
experience, most people stabilize their weight
right where it is, even if they come into treatment showing extremes of restraint/disinhibition behavior such as binging and purging.
SecretsBook.indb 41
Weight and Health
Health can be improved independent of weight
loss by developing positive behaviors and attitudes: competent eating, rewarding and sustainable activity, and physical self-esteem.
Survey data indicate that people who are more
competent with eating have better health indicators—blood lipids, blood glucose, and blood
pressure.11 They have higher levels of body satisfaction and lower levels of psychosocial dysfunction.10 Clinical data indicate that people
who replace restraint and disinhibition with
internally regulated eating improve their attitudes about eating, stabilize weight, and have
improved health indicators.3,12 Appendix D,
“BMI, Mortality, Morbidity, and Health: Resolving the Weight Dilemma,” shows the evidence
that weight stability produces superior health
outcomes compared with major weight loss or
yo-yo weight patterns secondary to yo-yo eating. People who are moderately and consistently active have higher disease resistance,
irrespective of BMI: It is better to be fat and fit
than thin and unfit.
Data Resistance
The idea that it is possible to lose weight and
keep it off is astonishingly data-resistant. Despite
overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people
have a remarkably strong tendency to keep the
dream alive that the next diet will work. Old professionals like me, and some who gain wisdom
before they get old, have come to realize that
dieting doesn’t work. However, the young ones
come out of school just like I did, with stars in
their eyes, convinced that they alone can break
the curse with their nifty new approach to
weight management. But there is nothing new
under the sun, and the “new” methods have
been tried—and have failed—before.
Health policy makers are as data-resistant as
the rest of us. The official policy makers continue to emphasize the dangers of high body
weight and the importance of weight loss even
though, when pressed, they acknowledge that
weight loss is rare. However, they judge that it
is better to lose and regain than to not lose at
all.13 Those policy makers can only draw such
conclusions by ignoring the anguish of people
who are caught in the cycle of dieting and
weight regain. Instead, policy-makers judge
that above-average body weight is, on some
level, a matter of choice and that choice must be
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Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family
addressed in order to save the person of size
from health catastrophe and social, emotional,
and quality-of-life inferiority.
Fiddle-faddle. If people of size are miserable,
it is because they are reminded over and over
again that they are miserable. The data I report
in appendix D, “BMI, Mortality, Morbidity, and
Health: Resolving the Weight Dilemma,” show
that people of size can be as healthy—physically, emotionally, and socially—as anyone else.
However, I have yet to help someone give up
dieting by showing them the true facts and figures on weight and marshalling the evidence
that it is not the serious health risk we have
been led to believe. In my experience, coming to
terms with body weight is an emotional issue,
not an intellectual one.
“You are taking away hope,” both professionals and individuals accuse in response to my
naysaying about weight loss. “Your hope is too
narrow,” I respond. “Why confine your hopes to
being a different size and shape? Why not hope
for being all you can be and having joy in life?”
Dieting: Cost or Benefit?
Despite the fact that we alibi our dieting by
­saying it is a health concern, most of us do it
because of vanity. If vanity is your reason for
weight loss, it is a cost-benefit decision. How
much are you willing to expend for vanity?
How rigid do you want to be about your definitions of beauty? Rigid enough to devote a great
deal of your time and energy to forcing your
weight down and keeping it down? Rigid
enough to be continually hungry and foodpreoccupied and chronically tired, cranky, and
even depressed? How attractive is it to be selfabsorbed and surly, unwilling to join in with
the rewarding meals that others are eating, and
how does it affect your ability to be a good
friend or spouse or parent?
Trying to get your body to be heavier than is
natural for it doesn’t work either. You can stuff
yourself to force your weight up, but eventually
you will tire of the bloated, turned-off-to-food
feelings that go along with overeating, and you
will give up the effort. Your body will fight you
on gaining above your preferred level as well,
and eventually it will return to what it was
before you started trying to change it.
If you are lucky.
If you are not lucky—and many people, children and adults alike, are not—you will experience a rebound effect. Over my professional
career, I have worked with hundreds of people
SecretsBook.indb 42
who have become fatter because of their dieting. They look wistfully at their toddler, schoolage, teenage, or young adult photos and say,
“I was chubby, but I was fine. I wish I were as
slim now as I was then.” Despite the casual
way many people jump on and off diets,
weight-reduction dieting is serious business
with the potential for considerable negative
consequence. It can screw up your homeostasis,
the mechanisms that keep your weight pretty
stable without you having to think too much
about it. Once homeostasis is corrupted, it is
beastly difficult to restore it to order.
I say this in other chapters, and I will say it
again. If you choose to diet, it is up to you. However, if you have children, you are being irresponsible in making that choice. Parents who
diet don’t do as well with feeding their children,
and despite their best intentions, their children
tend to go on and off diets right along with
them. Consider the child of the parent on the
Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet. Is that child
likely to be offered pasta prepared in interesting
ways, luscious bread, and wonderful fruit desserts? Children and adolescents learn dieting
from their parents. Even if the dieting parent
has willpower of steel, the child will observe
what her parent eats, and deep in her heart of
hearts, she will say, “When I get big, that is how
I will eat.”
Nutrition professionals emphasize “healthful”
low-calorie dieting as a way of losing and maintaining weight: Eat more fruits, vegetables, and
skim milk; eat more high-fiber food such as
whole grains; and hold way down on fat and
sugar. In fact, if you work your way through
MyPyramid and get your “personal eating plan,”
that is exactly what you get—a food prescription
that satisfies those parameters. There is no evidence that such regimens produce weight loss.
In fact, for teenagers, there is evidence to the contrary. Adolescents who diet are heavier 5 years
later, whether they engage in “healthful” or
unhealthful weight-control practices.14
Of the four chapters that discuss eating competence, this may be the most difficult for you.
It is certainly the longest, and grappling with
energy regulation and weight issues has spun
off two appendixes. It also has the potential for
being the most pivotal and rewarding chapter.
Compared with trying to manage your food
intake with control and avoidance, trusting
your body to let you know how much you need
to eat is like night and day. It is joyful.
7/30/08 10:43:31 PM
Eat as Much as You Want
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Galuska DA, Mendlein JM, Heath GW.
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8. Haskell WL, Lee IM, Pate RR, et al.
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